How will Va. Democrats respond to McDonnell's ambitious agenda?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:45 PM

RICHMOND - After two years of electoral losses at the state and federal levels, Virginia Democrats must decide how aggressively to confront Gov. Robert F. McDonnell during this year's short legislative session.

McDonnell (R) has signaled that he will advance an unusually ambitious agenda for the 46-day gathering that convenes Wednesday, attempting to revamp how the state pays for its public universities, sell off government-owned liquor stores, make dramatic changes to state employee pensions and enact a plan to spend $3.3 billion on state roads, most of it in borrowed funds.

Looming over the session in Richmond are also state elections in November, when all 100 members of the House of Delegates and all 40 state Senate seats are up for election.

For Democrats - who lost the governor's mansion in 2009 - it will be critical to retain control of the state Senate, where they hold a narrow majority, and to not lose further ground in the House of Delegates, where they are outnumbered.

Some rank-and-file party members have encouraged legislative leaders to more forcefully challenge McDonnell, as they smart over the governor taking credit for closing the state budget gap last year without a tax increase and largely with Democratic support.

Some legislative leaders say McDonnell is being fiscally irresponsible, making expensive promises while the state's economy is recovering from the recession and advancing a plan to improve state roads that relies on debt.

"What mystifies me is that on the heels of this election, where people were incensed with deficit spending in Washington, that the governor whips out the credit card," said Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry).

Others fear resisting the governor's agenda could earn them the same criticism that Democrats have been lobbing at Republicans in Washington - that they are obstructionists who have not advanced an alternative vision for governing.

While individual Democratic lawmakers have submitted bills they say they will prioritize, the caucus has not announced plans to roll out a unified legislative package.

"The dilemma will be if McDonnell maneuvers them into a position where they are vulnerable to the same attack that's been made against Republicans for a decade - that they're the 'party of no,' " said Robert D. Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor who writes a blog on state politics. "I think it's very clear they're going to be feistier. Whether the Democratic Party puts forward a very clear alternative on issues beyond social issues is their challenge."

Nowhere is the dilemma likely to be more pronounced than on transportation, a perpetual dividing line between the parties that has bedeviled state politicians for a decade. Most experts agree that fixing Virginia's overburdened road network and crumbling bridges would cost more than $1 billion a year over the next 20 years.

Democrats have long maintained that the problem requires finding a new stream of revenue, such as a tax increase. But Republicans have said they will not raise taxes.

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